Court Case Stages

First Court Appearance:

After a DUI arrest, at some point a court appearance will inevitably follow. This is not a time to “go it alone.” The first court appearance after a DUI arrest will typically involve a reading of the charges by the judge or prosecutor and then the entry of a plea of either “guilty” or “not guilty” in open court. Some people wonder how they can ethically enter a plea of “not guilty” when the breath test or other evidence against them seems strong. The answer is that a “not guilty” plea legally means “not proved.” This type of plea preserves the status quo so that an attorney can learn all the facts, evaluate the evidence, and map out the strategy that best helps the client. In a high profile case that I handled, a member of the news media asked why the client was saying he was not guilty by entering the plea. I explained why such a plea is entered and characterized it as a “lawyer’s plea” that preserves the status quo. Bear in mind that at the arraignment, you will be asked whether the name and birthday listed in the charging document are correct and whether you understand the nature of the charges. In most cases, the only talking you will need to do in court at the arraignment is to say “yes” to these questions. Once a not guilty plea is entered, the court will schedule future proceedings in your case.

Another part of the arraignment is the setting of conditions of release. Here, despite the fact that you have not been convicted of the charge, the judge can order you to do things that can feel very much like you have been convicted. For instance, the judge has the power to impose an ignition interlock as a condition of driving. He can order you not to consume alcohol while driving. He can require you to wear an alcohol-sensing bracelet on your ankle (called SCRAM) that reports to the court immediately if it senses any consumption of alcohol. Depending upon the facts, a judge can impose a bail requirement at arraignment, even if you posted bail to get out of jail. An experienced DUI lawyer will be able to advise you regarding the practices of a particular court and judge so that you can be prepared for whatever might happen at arraignment.

It is important to look at your paperwork since you may have a court date coming up right away and not be aware of it. Some courts, such as Seattle Municipal Court, schedule arraignments within a couple of days of the arrest. It is not uncommon for DUI arraignments to be held on a Saturday in this court. Other courts have a different procedure and the arraignment might not be until several weeks or even a month after the arrest.

Pretrial Conference Stage:

At arraignment, most courts set the case for a “pretrial conference.” This is mainly a scheduling conference from which subsequent court dates are set but it also is an opportunity for defense counsel to negotiate with the prosecution. It is not uncommon for several pretrial conferences to occur over a span of several months. It is hard to have the case hanging over one’s head that long, but experience has shown that in most cases, taking the time to fully prepare the case will lead to a better outcome of the case. At the pretrial conference, the arresting officer is not present and testimony is not taken. The lawyer does all the talking at a pretrial conference. It is somewhat of a stress reliever for you, as client, to know that you cannot be made to testify in court at any stage. The only thing a judge will typically ask of the accused at a pretrial conference is whether you understand that a new date is being set and that you agree to the new date.

Motions Hearing:

In many cases, a “motions hearing” is scheduled after the last pretrial conference. This is the next logical stage in most cases. A “motions hearing” is an opportunity for the defense to raise procedural or factual issues that, if succcessful, will lead to dismissal of the case or a ruling that some of the prosecution’s evidence cannot be used at trial. You cannot be found guilty by the judge at a motions hearing since this is not the trial. Testimony is usually taken from the arresting officer and the defense gets to cross examine that officer in the same fashion as would occur at trial. If progress is made at the motions hearing, the prosecutor may have to reconsider the case in light of the judge’s rulings or the officer’s testimony. If the prosecution’s case has been weakened during the motions hearing, the prosecutor might be persuaded to reduce the charge. Alternatively, success at a motions hearing can also put the defense in an advantageous position for trial of the case.

Trial of the Case:

This is where the prosecution is required to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. The verdict can be rendered either by a six-person jury or in some cases, a judge hears the evidence and renders verdict. Typically such trials take up to three days, depending upon the number of witnesses. The jury must be unanimous to render a verdict of not-guilty or guilty. If the jury can’t render a unanimous verdict, a “hung jury” is declared. In such a case the prosecution has the option to press the case to trial again.

Sentencing:

Sentencing occurs after a guilty finding is entered, whether the finding is the result of plea negotiations or a jury finding after a trial. In either case, at sentencing the judge decides what penalties to impose. In the case of a DUI conviction there are certain mandatory minimum penalties that the judge is required to impose, including jail, a fine, conditions on probation, etc. If sentencing is occurring on a reduced charge, then the judge can impose whatever sentence is deemed appropriate as for most non-DUI charges, there is no minimum sentence required. In certain cases, an “agreed recommendation” is placed before the court at sentencing. This is where the prosecution and the defense agree on the appropriate sentence and jointly ask the judge to impose that sentence. An agreed sentence is usually given great weight by a judge, but a judge is not bound to follow it.

Appeal:

In certain cases, legal rulings are made by the judge during the case that the defense feels are erroneous and prejudicial. An appeal involves placing the records of the case before an appellate judge and requesting relief in the form of a new trial or dismissal.

Questions? Call Jon Fox at (425) 274-9190.